Skip to main content

If you ask a prof a question …

This was intended as a relatively short essay, because I have lots of other things to do, and because I know that some members of my audience like to read the essay of the day before bedtime. But there is an accompanying piece, for those of you who want to read more.

One of the core aspects of a Grinnell education is Tutorial, a small (twelve student plus one professor), seminar-style course that every first-year Grinnell student takes in their first semester. Tutorial has many purposes, but it’s primary purpose is to help students adjust to college-level work, particularly college-level work at a place like Grinnell.

Flash back to 2003. I was recently tenured, and teaching my second Tutorial. I knew from experience that my students were not completely accustomed to academic life. They didn’t know about the many resources Grinnell provides. They didn’t quite understand the kinds of sources that are appropriate at college. And they certainly didn’t know all of the exciting challenges that awaited them.

I had children (and I still do). And, at least for this generation of children, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie was a popular book. The book, in essence, is about how things spiral out of control. Because, you know, if you give a mouse of cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk. And if you give him the glass of milk, when he’s done drinking it, he’ll want to look in the mirror to see whether he has a milk mustache. And then he’ll realize that he needs a trim [1]. And so on and so forth.

In a fit of inspiration, I wrote a really stupid Web site that narrates a student’s experience of the challenges of college. It shows students the value of various resources on campus (e.g., our reference librarians and writing lab play an important value), helps them consider the kinds of sources they should and should not use in college, and might even make them realize that they can draw upon multiple disciplines in analyzing a work [3].

And so was born If you ask a prof a question. It’s an ugly set of Web pages (or, more precisely, a CGI script that generate an ugly set of Web pages) that tells a story of a student who has the good fortune to have a professor who challenges them and helps them discover the wonderful resources on campus. It follows the model of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie: Each step leads to another, and another, and another. The children’s book had creative illustrations to go with the narrative. I stole a few images from the College’s web site, and used text rather than illustrations to underscore the primary narrative. I enjoyed writing it [4]. I think John Stone said something like Page 32 is brilliant. Everything after that is downhill. You need an editor. I don’t remember what my students said; I’m not sure that any of them even read it.

And then it sat there on the Web, as many things do. But I’d get the occasional interesting comment about it. A young faculty member thanked me for it and asked if they could adapt it for their class. A parent of a prospective told me that they’d found it while looking at Grinnell, and it was one of the reasons they encouraged their kids to look at Grinnell. If you read the essay, you’ll probably wonder what that parent feels about their children [5]. This past weekend, two first-year students told me that it was good that they found it after they’d put down their deposits, but I think they were joking with me.

I made slight updates a few years ago, particularly to acknowledge that our students no longer identify themselves along a gender binary and to accept that the writing lab is increasing the kinds of support it gives beyond just writing [6].

Where does this all lead? I’m not sure. When I reread the primer tonight, I had to agree with John Stone that it gets pretty grim. But I also still think it’s funny and that it teaches some important lessons. I’m glad I wrote it. I’ll probably never revise it significantly. Maybe, someday, a student will use it as the script for a titular head film. Maybe, someday, Admissions will use it as the basis for a promotional piece on the quality of education you get at Grinnell. Maybe, someday, I’ll hire an artist and self-publish. Or maybe it will just stay as a thing on the Web that a few people find and find funny. And, perhaps, somewhere in the midst of all that, I’ll find an editor. We’ll see ….

[1] That’s my paraphrase of how I remember the book beginning. I’m pretty sure that my use of that paraphrase in this essay meets three of the four criteria for fair use. I’m not using a substantive portion of the book. This essay is not written for commercial purposes. Hearing the first three or so sentences of the book is unlikely to affect its market (other than positively). So the only criterion that suggests that this use is not fair is that the original work is clearly creative. There’s no bright line, but I think I’m okay [2].

[2] This analysis of fair use was inspired by the topic of that Tutorial, fair use in the 21st century.

[3] Yeah, those are lofty goals. I didn’t really achieve any of them.

[4] It was certainly more fun to create that primer than it is to grade things.

[5] Sorry, M and H, but it’s not clear to me that the primer provides a particularly positive perspective on Grinnell, and your parent’s perspective promoting the piece is therefore potentially puzzling.

[6] Well, I thought I made that second change, but I don’t see it there.

[7] Thanks to [SimpsonE] for the awesome guide to writing thesis statements!